Face to face with Whang Od, the oldest and last surviving traditional tattoo artist of Kalinga
With only a handful of clothes, two paperbacks, a music player, and a couple of snacks tucked in a small red backpack, I boarded a bus in Pasay bound for Bontoc on the evening of December 25 last year to embark on a journey to come face to face with the legendary Whang Od, the oldest and last surviving Kalinga mambabatok (traditional tattoo artist).
I reached Bontoc after a 12-hour bus ride and met my guide, Ruel Bimuyag. We spent two hours top-loading on a small bus going to Tinglayan, and another 30 minutes on a dirt bike to head up the hills leading to Buscalan. We then hiked for an hour or two through ravines and steep mountain slopes. Shortly after noon, we arrived in Buscalan, a small, secluded, and serene barangay nestled in the mountainous province of Kalinga at an altitude of about 2,000 meters. Aside from the fame Whang Od has brought to the village, Buscalan is also known as the homeland of the Butbut Tribe, once notorious among the Cordillera groups of people for their ferocious head-hunting culture.
In ancient times, the art of batok (tattoo) was considered a sacred rite; its purpose goes beyond mere aesthetics. Tattoos differentiate special women from the wallflowers, and men from boys. A woman with tattoo was regarded as beautiful, while a man with tattoos was considered strong.
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The 94-year-old legend in the flesh, and in my flesh
Whang Od in the flesh is brimming with life and grace at 95, wearing a white shirt, a white scarf around her head, and adorned with layers upon layers of colorful beaded necklaces and bracelets. Even as a slender woman standing 4 feet tall, Whang Od is a figure of strength and resilience. The lines on her face and tattoos all over her body only add character to a woman already overflowing with it.
Whang Od’s body is a living canvass of the Butbut tribe’s history and folklore, including her own personal experiences. A tattoo on her wrist depicts her devotion for the first man she ever loved. She lost him to an accident when she was 25, and never loved again.
Blood, persistence, and ink
Ruel suggested a couple of things to help block the pain during the process. I paused to consider, and then I made up my mind: I would do absolutely nothing and embrace the pain.
I sat on a low wooden stool facing Whang Od, and we began the ordeal. My chosen design was a centipede, the most widespread of all Kalinga tattoo motifs. It is regarded as a symbol of protection and spiritual guidance. Whang Od used a thin blade of grass dipped in a pasty mixture of pine soot and water to create the pattern on my left wrist. She did this with such precision, meticulously examining every leg of the centipede to perfection. She used the same mixture for the ink, and a sharp pomelo thorn as the needle. She smeared the needle with ink, and attached it to the end of a short bamboo stick. Using another stick of wood to hold the needle in place, she began tapping on the skin repeatedly, carefully tracing the pattern, blood and ink mixing together.
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Equal parts pain and pleasure
I cringed and writhed in pain, but managed to hold back my tears. Whang Od tried to make me feel at ease by making silly green jokes, something she’s very fond of. She told me in her native language, “Sa maliit na tinik nasasaktan ka pero sa malaki hindi.”
A true master of her craft, Whang Od doesn’t stop tapping until the skin completely absorbs the ink. In fact, she doesn’t stop tapping until she’s fully satisfied with her work. She regards every tattoo she makes as a work of art, and like any other artist, she takes pride in being meticulous about her work.
At first I was resisting, but I eventually gave in. I let the ink travel through my veins. Although the whole process was unbearably excruciating, it proved to be a very therapeutic experience for me. It was almost spiritual. Whang Od has a certain way of making you feel at ease.
At dusk, I witnessed the men of the village slaughter a healthy white chicken for dinner. After exploring the village and interacting with the locals, I pleaded to be excused and went back to my hut. I was exhausted and restless, and in pain.
The morning after
Drowsiness soon came over me. I switched my music player off, tossed Rilke’s “Book of Images” to the floor beside me, and curled up to sleep. A few hours later, I awoke to a sepia-colored horizon and a cool breeze through the windows of my little hut. My left wrist was five times thicker than it was just less than 24 hours ago. I felt strong bass beats throbbing from the wound. The cold and humid weather didn’t help one bit. The world around me was rolling and spinning, almost endlessly. It felt like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
I heard two knocks on the door, and I was transported back to reality. It was Ruel giving me a pleasant morning greeting, with a cup of coffee in one hand, and a huge smile plastered across his face.
It was time to leave Buscalan.
I came to visit Whang Od in her house for the last time. We found her nursing a wild pig that just gave birth to six piglets. We shared a few more stories, banters and photos together, and then I hugged her, the original illustrated woman of the North, goodbye.
Different people have varying opinions about tattoos. I, on my part, feel nothing but pride. I am proud to be a living canvass of culture and tradition; proud to be a living vessel of an art that speaks of true beauty and strength. I will carry this symbol for the rest of my days knowing I have something in me that connects me to our ancestors.
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